It used to be when relatives visited from out of town you'd take them to a Basque restaurant to give them a real Bakersfield experience. I think that's shifted to a visit to Buck Owens' Crystal Palace.
We had family visiting over the holidays, and our first attempt was on a weekend without reservations. Such foolishness. Buck's signature nightclub is not gonna have openings then. So we went back on a weekday night and only the lower level was packed. Buck may be gone, but he can still draw a crowd.
With a big party, we had a chance to sample so much on the menu, which over the years has tempted us with fantastic chicken-fried steak (I have to resist the urge to order what to me is the best I've ever had) to aged beef steaks and now sandwiches, pizzas, and salmon grilled with a cedar plank.
What I love about this place is the variety of price points, a concept pioneered locally by The Bistro and perfected by The Mark downtown: There's something for wallets of every thickness. Sandwiches, burgers and salads are offered at around $10; steaks and more expensive items are in the 30s. This wide range of prices is a growing industry trend and just smart business.
On this visit we ordered the aforementioned Norwegian salmon ($20.99), a New York strip steak dinner ($25.99), the Sound Check chicken sandwich ($8.99), the Sherman Texas chicken sandwich ($9.99) and the Barbecue Palace pizza ($11.99).
The pizza's crust didn't impress me, but the finely chopped toppings -- grilled chicken, bacon, tomato, onion -- were first rate. The barbecue sauce was a perfect touch. A very cheesy pizza, too.
The chicken sandwiches were simple but satisfying, the Sound Check served on a whole-wheat bun with Dijon honey sauce, Jack cheese and mesquite-grilled chicken breast. Not sure it was healthy, but it sure seemed like it. The Sherman had similar ingredients, with the addition of bacon and an Ortega chile as well as lightly toasted sourdough bread subbing for the bun. Both were served with exceptional steak fries flavored with seasoning salt.
My steak dinner was solid with one exception. The quality of the beef is up there with Cafe Med and KC Steakhouse, and I loved the brush of garlic butter on top. The mashed potatoes are dense, and I asked for the "country gravy" on the side as this can overwhelm the spuds. My biggest complaint were the "Zesty Cooked green beans," fresh and nicely flavored with bacon and onion. Like my pasta, I prefer the green beans to be served al dente, the way Tahoe Joe's presents them. Here, they're overcooked mush, like the pasta at Olive Garden. I realize that the Crystal Palace is probably just honoring the keystone of capitalism -- giving customers what they want -- but I still don't like it. Al dente is the way to go.
My companion's salmon was presented on the cedar plank, with grill marks and a grilled lemon on the side. It could compete with the steak, though I've heard that the kitchen also does well with the halibut ($24.99), which is topped with lemon butter.
The other support food was good, particularly the vegetable beef soup I enjoyed before dinner (tomato chunks, onions, carrots, potatoes, green beans and a fair amount of beef) as well as the warm biscuits and squaw bread served with honey butter.
We did try a new dessert, the New York cheesecake ($6.99), which is tall and resembles the excellent Tahoe Joe's product, with a couple exceptions. Instead of whipped cream, there's a half-inch thick coating of plain cream cheese on top, a really old-school style of presentation. One other notable feature was the use of cinnamon and possibly nutmeg in the cheese, subtle but mentioned on the menu as "spices." It's definitely intriguing and unique.
Service was mixed; we had a long wait for the entrees with no "your-food-will-be-out-soon" reassurances. It was sort of comical at our table because folks looking at what others were served were having second thoughts about their orders, wishing they'd gone for Buck's Texas chili ($7.59) in one case. I began wishing I'd gone for the filet mignon ($29.99), which I've enjoyed in the past. They really know how to treat that tender cut of beef. From what I saw, the place looked understaffed, even for a weekday night.
Having said all that, you can't top the festive atmosphere at this place. The photos on the wall are fascinating in and of themselves. Buck with Ray Charles, Johnny Carson, John Wayne, Joey Bishop, Dinah Shore and various presidents, like Ronald Reagan. Is there anyone that guy didn't meet in his lifetime?
The house band was doing covers of songs like "Third Rate Romance" and "You're Just my Redneck Girl" and had a full dance floor expertly line dancing. Thanks to the Palace, there's a roaring nightlife most nights in Bakersfield -- as long as you're OK with country.